Despite its imaginative brilliance, The House of Blue Leaves eventually falls apart
John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, first produced in 1971, is satiric, poignant, farcical, highly metaphorical and filled with poetic flights of language, strange juxtapositions and dream descriptions; it's smart but falls apart in the second act; and it's theatrical-realistic and original, but very much in line with the theater of its period — which is to say, the author frequently has his characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to us, the audience, and gives almost all of them the sort of evocative but illogical monologues that Sam Shepard, in a much grimmer vein, made his hallmark. The shorthand description? It's black comedy.
For all the surface humor, the script hints at or explores all kinds of significant themes: madness and whether the mad are actually more sane than the rest of us; general human self-delusion and idiocy; violence and war. Recurring metaphors include the zoo animals tended by Artie, the zookeeper protagonist, who are all on the verge of parturition as the play opens and have given birth in a great burst by the end. The house of blue leaves is the mental institution to which Artie wants his crazy wife, Bananas (really), committed because on a visit to check out the place, he saw a tree covered with blue leaves that turned out to be bluebirds — presumably not of happiness.
Artie is a songwriter on the side, though not a talented one (one of his songs is titled "Who Put the Devil in Angela's Eyes?"), and his mistress, Bunny, is convinced he can be a star. She enjoys flaunting their relationship to Bananas. Though she'll sleep with Artie whenever he wants, she withholds her cooking — which is the thing he most yearns for. So cooking, along with lists and photographs of Bunny's food, becomes another recurring theme.
Everyone in The House of Blue Leaves is obsessed with fame. The action takes place in 1965, on the day when, in real life, Pope Paul VI visited New York City to address the United Nations on the Vietnam War. Bunny wants close-in tickets for his parade through the streets so that he can bless her and Artie's endeavors. She doesn't have an appropriate Pope button to wear for the occasion, but since she once attended a Beatles concert, she happily dons one that says "I Love Paul." She also assures the desperate Bananas that her tribulations are nothing compared to those of Sandra Dee on the night the movie star, about to face a major audition, couldn't find her hair curlers because, unlike Dee, "You're nobody." Bunny isn't the only one who venerates the famous. Bananas has a dream in which Bob Hope, Jackie Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson and Cardinal Spellman all mock and despise her. And Ronnie, crazy son of Artie and crazy Bananas, plans to blow up the Pope because, he says, "My father thinks I'm nothing. By tonight I'll be all over the world."
Oddly, Artie does have a real famous friend, having grown up with film director Billy Einhorn. In the second act, Einhorn's mistress Corinna, a starlet whose career was ended when an on-set accident left her deaf, arrives; eventually Einhorn does, too. Three starstruck nuns become trapped on the roof in an attempt to see the Pope, but end up just as thrilled when they recognize Corinna.
So much inventiveness and fertility, so much verbal brilliance. But Guare doesn't really run down any of the hares he lets loose. The plot doesn't cohere; you never get one of those "Aha!" moments when all the craziness makes sense, even if only in a crazy way. The story that underlies the whirl of activity and gives the play its juice is the tragic one of Artie and Bananas, who apparently loved each other deeply before he became a fame-craving narcissist and she slipped into over-medicated madness. Tom Auclair and Missy Moore's deeply felt performances in these roles anchor this production by Edge Theatre (a company edgier than its Lakewood address might indicate). Auclair does a fine job portraying a man you alternately pity and despise, one who's trying in every way he can think of to hold his life together. Moore's Bananas is droopy and miserable most of the time, but capable of flashes of spite, humor and insight. Her silent reactions as Kelly Uhlenhopp's vivacious Bunny stalks the stage, babbling, self-absorbed and oblivious, provide some of the funniest — and saddest — moments of the evening.
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